A View Into New Urbanism's Inherent Flaw

Atlanta residents have one thing in common: dealing with traffic. I spend many mornings pulling my hair out on the gridlocked highways alongside my fellow commuters. With a transit system that hasn’t expanded its heavy rail in over 30 years, sitting on surface streets is typically the only option for getting around. As congestion worsens, Atlanta city planners are turning to the concept of New Urbanism.

New Urbanism, which rose to popularity in the 1980s, focuses on promoting the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities. These communities have all the essential components of conventional developments, but assemble them in a more integrated fashion to form complete communities. These contain housing, places of employment, shops, entertainment, schools, parks and civic facilities that are an integral part of residents’ daily lives, all within easy walking or biking distance of each other.

The concept’s core is simple: keep your home, work and amenities close to one another to maximize efficiency and quality of life. Atlanta has been seeing a boom in these types of “live, work, play” communities, and their success has impacted nearby property values. However, as a result, residents who provide needed services at a lower pay scale are priced out of living by their workplace. This problem partly makes up another boom Atlanta has been seeing: gentrification. Though New Urbanism philosophy proposes that workplaces be within walking distance of residents, how can someone making minimum wage live alongside the Atlanta BeltLine, which has drastically changed the city? Homes that started at $100,000 three years ago are now averaging closer to $600,000, according to Atlanta Loop.

Last year, the visionary and founding member Ryan Gravel left the organization responsible for developing the former railway corridor. He has consistently reiterated his departure is due to the lack of affordable housing along the development. There are pragmatic solutions to help gentrification, which align with the New Urbanism. One of the most promising solutions is minimum allocations of affordable housing. Unfortunately, these solutions sometimes come with a stigma and are often underutilized.

While an affordable housing unit doesn’t provide a developer as much profit as a standard housing unit, it is supplemented by tax breaks and other government incentives to help counter the loss. The major issue with affordable housing is with residents unfamiliar with such projects. Affordable housing residents have long been labeled as members of an urban “underclass.” By deconcentrating poverty and integrating these housing residents into mixed-income communities where their residences are indistinguishable from those of their higher-income neighbors, some policymakers hope that the stigma these residents have experienced will be reduced or eliminated. Unfortunately, a study done by the University of Chicago suggests this integration has in fact had the opposite effect. The negative response of higher-income residents, along with stringent screening and rule enforcement, amplifies the sense of difference felt by many residents. It’s clear that education is desperately needed to assure residents that integration is beneficial to all and necessary to create equity in our New Urbanism developments.

So here we are trying to make New Urbanism a win-win situation for everyone. We want to alleviate traffic by having people live closer to their work and play. At the same time, we want to make sure everyone is afforded these privileges, and no one is being priced out of these highly desired live, work, play developments. We as a city must willingly begin to become more exposed to and educated about the benefits of integrated affordable housing. If not, a true New Urbanist development for all will never be viable. Until we reach the ideal, equitable developments, I’ll be right there with you, slowly rolling down the highway.

Blog by Clarence Solodkin, Project Manager

HGOR Admin